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THE DARK AGES                          109

formed the most important element in it But even if that be
so, the Irish schools differed in certain essential respects*from
the monastic schools of the Continent.

In the first place, they were not confined to those in Holy
orders, but, like those of their Druid predecessors, were open
to the laity. On this point there is striking testimony from
the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede. Speaking
of the yellow plague which raged in both Britain and Ireland
in 664, he says: " There were in Ireland at this time many
people of English race, both nobles and men of lower rank,
who had left their island and withdrawn to Ireland to study
the sacred writings or to lead a simple life. Some of these soon
bound themselves to the monastic discipline. Others preferring
to remain free to change their domicile and their teachers found
their pleasure in study. The Irish received them gladly, provided
them with their daily food free of cost, furnished them with books
to read, and gave them gratuitous instruction."*

In the second place, the Irish scholars were at an early date
keen students of the classics. At a time when the Western Church
was ignorant of the literature of Greece and distrustful of the
literature of Rome, the Irish monks were enthusiastically studying
both. In their remote island home they had none of the fear of
the subversive power of the paganism embodied in the classical
writings which obsessed many of their brethren elsewhere, and
they were able to appreciate them at their proper literary value.
The missionaries who crossed over from Ireland to Gaul towards
the end of the Sixth Century were well versed in literature and
wrote much purer and better Latin than any of their contempor-
aries ; and throughout the two following centuries their successors
enjoyed a great reputation as Greek scholars. " The knowledge
of Greek, which had almost vanished in the West," writes Sandys,*}*
" was so widely diffused in the schools of Ireland, that if any one
knew Greek, it was assumed that he must have come from that

In the third place, unlike the Roman clergy, who generally
confined their attention to Latin and ignored the vernacular of the
peoples among whom they worked, the Irish monks maintained a
lively interest in the native language and literature. An incident
in the life of St. Columba illustrates this point. Adamnan, the
* iii, 27.              f History of Classical Scholarship, i, 437.